The Cannes Film Festival may be one of the great celebrations for cinema on Earth, but even the best lineup doesn’t guarantee a strong market. Yes, movies sold at the 2019 edition: Highlights such as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (NEON/Hulu), “Les Miserables” (Amazon), “The Climb” (Sony Pictures Classics), and “Atlantics” (Netflix) found homes at the festival and will likely continue to generate buzz throughout the year. But the international context of the festival makes it hard to gauge how films that play in the cinephile-friendly gathering can find success in release. Needless to say, there were several Cannes highlights that ended the festival without North American distribution in place. Here are a few of them. If distributors are reading this, take note: We know you can do this.
Nothing in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Sonia Braga drama “Aquarius” could have prepared audiences for this unclassifiable dystopian Western fever dream, co-directed by Juliano Dornelles. “Bacurau” unfolds in a near-future desert setting, as the eponymous remote community contends with a water crisis and a mysterious pack of American vigilantes who have been picking off their people one by one. The movie’s cryptic plot is equal parts John Carpenter and Sergio Leone as it builds to a bloody showdown between warring factions straight out of “Seven Samurai.” In other words, it’s exactly the sort of love letter to first-class filmmaking that a former critic like Filho would make, as well as a visionary cinematic achievement on its own terms.
Among the many joys of “Bacurau”: Sonia Braga as a hard-drinking, no-nonsense doctor; Udo Kier as a demented killer; an ebullient neighborhood guitarist who follows locals around and sings songs about their lives; and a local fixation on psychedelics, which enter into the plot more than once. “Bacurau” moves along in remarkable fits of inspiration, careening from playful explorations of communal support and progressive relationships to violent showdowns and ideological spats. Plus, there are UFOs and ghosts. What else do you need to know? The movie may strike some distributors as a tough sell, but consider this: It’s got sex, violence, dramatic payoff, and conversation-starting ideas about the modern world. Lean into those selling points, cut a killer trailer, and “Bacurau” could be a surprise hit. —EK
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There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Kantemir Balagov’s heartbreaking “Beanpole” isn’t the easiest sell in the world. Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” the film is a methodical and sometimes grueling 134-minute period drama about two Russian women — best friends — who grow so desperate for any kind of personal agency after the Siege of Leningrad that they start using each other to answer the unsolvable arithmetic of life and death. Starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya, a nurse suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and Vasilisa Perelygina as Masha, a traumatized soldier whose son Iya accidentally suffocates to death, “Beanpole” isn’t for the faint of heart; imagine a cross between “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” and an Andrei Tarkovksy film and you’ll be on the right track.
But, with a little patience, Balagov’s “Closeness” follow-up offers a tremendous bounty of rewards. Told with steely resolve, brutal honesty, and the kind of post-war production detail that deserves comparison to that seen in “Roma,” “Beanpole” accumulates an immense power as its story gradually sprouts from the miserablism where it begins. Balagov elicits astounding performances from his lead actresses (both newcomers), and they in turn elevate this film to a rarefied place of emotional transcendence in the unshakeable final scene. A boutique distributor with an eye for quality and a flair for connecting with adventurous audiences would be wise to put their stamp on a film that will only grow in renown over the years to come. —DE
Sales Contact: Wild Bunch
A boxer with a brain tumor, a crooked cop with terrible luck, a screw-up yakuza who’s seen too many movies, a dismembered Chinese gangster who wields a pump-action shotgun with his one remaining arm, a terrified prostitute who’s stalked by a ghost in tighty whities, an un-killable femme fatale who will kick a man to death just for being in her way, and the world’s most wonderful heroin. Those are just some of the many different ingredients that prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike swirls into his frequently sublime new gangster film, a piece of work so feral and full of life that you’d never guess it was (at least) the 90th feature its director has made in the last 30 years. And while the opening act might seem too serious to support the cutesy title, the most amazing thing about “First Love” is how sincerely it feels like Miike’s take on an ensemble romantic comedy, as the movie explodes into a hilariously absurdist ride that brings all of its characters together in the wackiest of ways, and even forges some beautiful bonds between them in the process.
“First Love” would play just fine on VOD (especially if people watched it together with their friends), but it would have the potential to blossom into a genuine cult hit if a smart distributor with a taste for grindhouse-adjacent fare gave it the theatrical run Miike deserves, and allowed audiences to experience this hugely satisfying crowdpleaser as it was meant to be seen. The crowd at Cannes erupted into spontaneous applause on at least two different occasions during the Directors’ Fortnight premiere, and that energy could easily translate across the pond. —DE
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The insuppressible Gaspar Noé took a gig to make a 15-minute Yves Saint Laurent ad and turned it into a freewheeling, neon-drenched 50-minute exploration of the filmmaking process. Béatrice Dalle is hilarious in the lead role as a version of herself, making her directorial debut on a film shoot that keeps going very wrong. Charlotte Gainsbourg (also playing herself) is tasked with acting in a post-modern tale of witchcraft, but Noé’s rapid-fire narrative has a lot more on his mind than this straightforward plot. The movie regularly cuts away to text-based musings on the filmmaking process, and climaxes with an unnerving 10 minutes of stereoscopics. But despite its visceral provocations, “Lux Æterna” always shows the mark of a filmmaker in control of his outlandish material, and the movie manages to deliver its outrageous twists with a consistent fixation on the chaos of the creative process. An adventurous distributor could propel this unclassifiable shot of cinematic inspiration to a successful launch on VOD, but rumor has it that Noé has more footage for “Lux Æterna” and could actually transform it into a more traditional feature-length achievement — which would make it a terrific candidate for word-of-mouth success. In any case, Noé is a singular film artist whose work deserves an audience. —EK
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Courtesy of Cannes
Fatherhood and midlife doldrums are not the usual terrain for director Abel Ferrara, whose dark tales of angry urbanites have coalesced into a striking vision of despair across several decades, but everyone grows up sometime. In the scrappy and often endearing drama “Tommaso,” Ferrara casts regular muse Willem Dafoe as a fictionalized version of the filmmaker himself, a broken man still picking up the pieces from his prior misdeeds to find some measure of stability. Having found a new life in Italy with a much younger wife and child — both played by the real ones in Ferrara’s life — Tommaso struggles to reconcile a new beginning with the stumbles of the past.
A microbudget “Birdman” about the travails of a once-successful artist losing his grasp on reality, “Tommaso” comes across as Ferrara’s most personal work on many levels. The lo-fi chamber piece is a messy, ruminative self-portrait, elevated by Dafoe’s extraordinary performance and a striking intimacy that sets the movie apart from much of Ferrara’s work. The lo-fi aesthetic may scare off some distributors, but Dafoe is arguably entering his greatest period as an actor, and “Tommaso” is another distillation of his unparalleled talent. A strong campaign built around his performance could yield solid returns, as well as a welcome opportunity to evaluate Ferrara’s resilience as a filmmaker. —EK
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